Luke Mehall, 37, is a climber and author that speaks from a place at once of this generation of climbers and that of a fleeting era— an era that might be dubbed as the original dirtbag generation. In his longing for a life of simplicity he is a part of and apart from what the climbing culture has become. It is his approach to climbing and his narrative styling that has come to define his lifestyle and philosophy as to how this life can be lived.
In his newest book and memoir, American Climber, it is as though Mehall speaks to the reader while huddled over a crackling fire and shoveling in mouthfuls of cold baked beans. His is a voice reminiscent of Edward Abbey as he comes to reveal the sacredness of the vertical world and it is in his writing, his passionate words motoring wildly along with the likes of Kerouac and Bob Dylan that he brings the reader along on his journey out of the tradition of the Midwest and into the vast expanse of the Desert Southwest. It is on this trip that Mehall guides the reader to feel his longing for what once was and his openness to what has become his salvation through climbing.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Mehall and discuss his book in Durango, Colo. before he punched the clock at his workplace, Zia Taqueria, a locals’ take on Mexican cuisine and Mehall’s “workbag-dream-job.”
Mehall is pure energy, grinning as he rolls up on his mountain bike in a t-shirt and blue jeans. I notice the residual climbing chalk stuck beneath his fingernails and the white that fills in the small cracks of his knuckles. He pulls off his neon green bike helmet while tossing aside his daypack as he makes his way through the serving line. He sits down at the dining booth with several tacos on his plate.
It’s not how great of a climber he is after 17 years of climbing, Mehall says, that makes his book worth reading. In fact, he claims it is simply the power of metaphor and the experience of an average climber in a sport that is now constantly pushing everything to extremes that lends power to his tale.
He smiles as he says that if you want a book by a badass climber go read Alex Honnold’s book but if you want a book that might make you challenge your perception of the American Dream and the lifestyle of a climber he says, it’s his book all the way.
“Look at the way people are now pushing the sport to its extreme, you don’t have to stick around that long to become old school just by the simple fact that you stay alive,” he says. “Every climber that has followed the path I have has done what I have done, they’ve all gone to Yosemite, Potrero, the Creek, J-Tree; everyone has done it. There is nothing interesting about it.”
So, what is it that makes the story of the everyman interesting, Mehall questions as he conveys the narrative arc of his memoir? It’s a story that follows his salvation from depression by way of escaping the normality of Midwestern life and finding climbing and to eventually discovering that the desert is something sacred to him, a cathedral of sorts.
“It’s the metaphor, the meaning you give to your life,” Mehall says. He gestures with his arms spread wide as though to encompass the taqueria in its entirety. He’s living his dream. He has become what he calls a “workbag.” “You’re still a dirtbag, you live simply and play a lot but you work a lot too you know,” he says laughing.
He works in the service industry for the freedom it affords him. And for the relaxed schedule that has allowed him to publish and operate as senior editor at the Climbing Zine and to pen his first two books, Climbing out of Bed and The Great American Dirtbags. And of course it affords him the ability to climb at the Creek or any of the top places in the country at a moment’s notice. He swears right now though, the Colorado Plateau is the best climbing in the nation.
The smell of handmade tortilla chips and tacos fill the air bringing his focus back to his current book. He rattles off a litany of difficulties he has encountered trying to get it off the ground. It’s been a battle worth the wounds since he hopes to inspire and transform the climbing culture from within—to become a writer of this generation whose words might fill the ever-present void left by the likes of Edward Abbey, Bob Dylan, Jon Krakauer, and John Long.
“I want to shape the culture. I feel this obligation to say you have this now, but it was this before. Climbing is not just this thing that you do, it is this more comprehensive thing that the younger climbers have to learn about first because they don’t see it or live it the way we did when we first started,” Mehall says.
Unflinchingly he begins to delve the memories of his struggles to get to where he his is now and what it has taken to achieve all that he has up to this point in his climbing and writing career. He recalls his desperate 20-year-old self. And his thoughts begin flow rapidly like the stream of consciousness that is the lyric styling of Kerouac only pausing briefly between bites of his taco as he remembers all that was working against him in those days.
“I was depressed and on a substance at all times you know,” he says. “I was on Ritalin for A.D.D and I was smoking a ton of pot, chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking soda and alcohol and doing LSD and other psychedelic drugs which, is all fine in moderation, but I was doing them all of the time.”
Twice a college dropout with habits that literally had him sitting in the dark of his parent’s basement in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, Mehall had reached his limits and knew that if he did not leave, did not abandon that world, he would soon be dead or in jail. He left notes with friends and a note for his parents letting them know he was leaving. He got into his car with little direction other than tracking down a “hippie girl” he once knew. He had to escape from the depression and rage that was welling up within him. For a month or longer, he was suicidal. He would drive through the night until falling asleep at the wheel not caring whether he lived or died. Without Instagram, Facebook, or a cellphone, Mehall says, it was a month before anyone knew where he was.
His memoir has been ten years in the making. He argues it’s not meant to be a downer but something that might give others hope as they go through similar trials. “I didn’t want to start in those dark places, the book is meant to inspire people and starts at a high point in my life in Yosemite with my climbing partner Dave Ahrens of Ridgeway, Colo. at the top of the Salathe Wall and ends on a high in Indian Creek,” Mehall says.
Living in his truck at rest stops and the campgrounds of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, he got back in touch with his parents and decided to enroll at Western State. He had found his new home in Gunnison, Colo. where the rock formations and the mountains would begin to transform his character, to shape who he was becoming. It was climbing that pulled him from his depression replacing his need for psychedelics, cigarettes and Ritalin. It fulfilled that need for a “substance high” while giving him purpose and a close-knit group of colorful friends that are on their own vagabond “dirtbag” journey like Two Tent Timmy who has a gold tooth and lived the better part in well, two tents, outside of Crested Butte.
Mehall takes a breath and pushes his lunch tray aside. He laces his fingers together on the tabletop. “I tried to write my memoir before I had enough experience to write a memoir–I couldn’t have written it if I didn’t have some crazy things happen in my life,” He says. “I was trying to write an On the Road Kerouac kinda’ thing. I probably had six or seven starts and I would get 15,000 words into it and then it would just fall apart.”
Much like climbing though, as it is in writing, it’s persistence that pays off. One week a climb will feel impossibly hard Mehall says as he crimps and jams the crux of an imaginary climb. And then the next time you try it the hands line up and that crux move, well, it’s just easy.
“In climbing you can fail so many times but there is this redemptive quality to it. A climb that you’ve been working for years, that was maybe too hard, or you were over gripping, or whatever and then you go back and send it and it’s easy. It’s the same in writing and now I finally have this book,” he says.
He tried to publish his memoir through traditional publishing houses though and it became a struggle, it was like he was battling a 5.13 R and taking some nasty 30-foot whippers. As he did in the past with his previous books, Mehall took it upon himself to publish his memoir through his own publishing house, Benighted Publications. Mehall jokingly laments the negative connotations of “self-publishing” a work.
“I was hoping to have the book picked up by a traditional publisher but I quickly got jaded on that. I had one editor tell me to not publish it, but to chop it up into short stories,” he says. “I basically told them ‘no’ in the nicest possible way that I could. Someday, I’d love to have a book published by a traditional publisher though.”
His setbacks publishing the book have had little negative affect on him. It simply motivated him to see his project through to the end. Ultimately it has opened him up to pursue publishing other authors’ work, to become his own publishing house. Promoting his own work has always felt weird, even egotistical he confesses. “I really want to publish other peoples’ work, to collaborate on their projects,” He says.
Mehall runs his hand through his short cropped hair as he tangentially moves between the profundity of climbing metaphors of his favorite rap lyrics by Andre 3000 to his great appreciation of the counter culture and the unique characters that have helped to shape his world view, “those who choose to be a dirtbag out of an intellectual, philosophical and informed choice, those are the most interesting people out there. And then there are people my age having families and moving on but they still live their lives through the philosophy they learned while leading the lifestyle,” He says.
American Climber is the “dirtbag” philosophy embodied in Mehall’s striking and honest prose. He takes his readers through to his personal acquisition of all that it is to be a dirtbag climber. “It’s not some bullshit marketing ploy when I say climbing saved my life, it’s very real and changed my life,” he says. It’s a tale of suicidal tendencies, drugs, sex and the salvation of souls through climbing. American Climber will have every “old school average climber” longing for the good ol’ dirtbag days. It is also a collection of profound honesty that Mehall confesses, will probably shock his mother and even his closest friends.
Mehall checks his watch. His work shift at Zia is about to begin. He wipes his hands on his napkin and stands up from the small dining booth. He shakes my hand and quietly turns away from the table. I can’t help but notice that in place of the rag wool socks and Sundowner boots of an influential generation now gone, are the soft flexing sticky-rubber approach shoes and denim jeans—And this generation’s Kerouac shouting out to those that are to find their own road toward salvation, ” get out and climb that goddamn mountain.”
Ed. note-Luke Mehall has contributed several pieces to the UAJ, with his last article “Protecting Abbey Country” appearing in the January 2016 issue.